< Presidential Reading

Transcript

Friday, August 26, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This is On the Media, and I'm Brooke Gladstone with a few of your letters. Last week we spoke with Bay Area Rapid Transit Deputy Police Chief Daniel Hartwig.

When faced with a large demonstration on the subway platform his department decided to cut off some cell phone service to prevent protesters from communicating. Here's a clip of Hartwig explaining his actions to Bob.

[CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:

Obviously, there is maintaining the public safety and order, and then there is suppressing political protest and freedom of speech. Can the police department be trusted to make the decision when it is the former and not the latter?

DANIEL HARTWIG:

We never lead with suppression of social media, suppression of First Amendment rights, suppression in any manner.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

There's a nasty hidden message to the statement, wrote listener Hunter J.E. from Kirkland, Washington. He went on, quote, “First it says that they too consider what they're doing to be suppressing First Amendment rights and, second, that they consider that a perfectly valid tool, if not a first one.  What we have is a government-run institutions saying right out that it considers impugning on the constitutional rights of citizens something it does and a valid tool. Disturbing.”

The counter argument came from Rena in Philadelphia, where there have been incidents of social media-fueled violence recently. She wrote that, quote, “I doubt many residents of Philly would have had any problem with blocking social media.”

For that story we also spoke to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jillian York, who drew comparisons between the BART shutdown and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak shutting down the Internet at key moments during the uprising there. Here's a clip from that interview:

[CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:

Does it help when police trying to do their best are compared to tyrants?

JILLIAN YORK:

I do think that these are two different situations. But, at the same time, the actions of the BART police did very much reflect the actions of Mubarak earlier this year in shutting down this media.

While these things did happen on very different scales, the intent was the same, to shut down speech in light of protests. We are looking at this as precedent, as a slippery slope. And I, I do fear that this is something we're going to be seeing a lot more often.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

“I believe that Jillian York overreaches with her slippery slope argument in this particular instance,” wrote Phil Edwards from Richmond, Virginia. He added, quote, “I hardly think that the limited geographic scope of the actions, along with the rationale provided by law enforcement, should evoke the same level of outrage as those of a regime which compels ISPs within its borders to choke off network access for the entire nation state. But reasonable people may disagree with this, and isn’t that kind of the point?”

All of the comments I just quoted from came from our website, which, as you may or may not know, recently underwent a facelift. Now you can get an OTM fix all week long. You just go to onthemedia.org, where you can find our new blog, occasional puzzles and regular features, such as our staff picks.

This summer I found myself on two separate weeks recommending novels about werewolves. What does that say about me?

 

 

 

 

 

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And that brings us neatly to our next story.  Every summer the White House releases what the President will be reading on his vacation. Usually the lists are full of weighty tomes of political theory or history. President Bush's 2006 summer reading list of 13 books included biographies of Abraham Lincoln, a history of polio, Camus’ The Stranger and Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Earlier this week the White House released President Obama's summer reading. Of the five books cited, four were fiction. This has set off grumbling amongst some Republican pundits, saying that by reading fiction Obama looked like a political lightweight. Tevi Troy, writing in The National Review Online said that, quote, “The near absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.

Theodore Roosevelt is often invoked by Republicans as a paragon of firmly grounded pragmatic participation on the public stage.

JOHN McCAIN:

[APPLAUSE]

I know that many of you have noticed it's not my style to simply phone it in.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

John McCain said, “I believe our leaders belong in the arena.”

JOHN McCAIN:
I’m a Teddy Roosevelt Republican.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Jon Huntsman said, I'm a center right candidate:

JON HUNTSMAN:

I think I've got pragmatic and practical solutions. If you’ll step up and do what Teddy Roosevelt would have advocated, get in the arena, it says something about you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

But even while Teddy Roosevelt himself was in the arena, he was reading everything, from science to history to fiction to poetry. We called Edmund Morris, author of The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt, to ask him about the reading habits of the 26th President.

EDMUND MORRIS:

Well, when you talk about these rather pathetic little lists that presidents feel they have to announce every summer, there’s a list that TR was asked to compile by the president of Columbia University in 1903, and TR’s list extends for three closely printed pages [BROOKE LAUGHS] of collected letters.

He write that he’d read parts of Herodotus, all of Polybius, a little of Plutarch, Sophocles’ Seven Against Thebes, Euripides’ Hippolytus and Bacchae. Later on we’ve got Carlysle, we’ve got a whole raft of something like half a page of novels, including all of Walter Scott. He was reading, by the way, in German and Italian and French, as well as in English. He was omnivorous.

He read on average a book a day. That’s not an exaggeration; it’s documented. Sometimes he read three books a day.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Where did he get the time?

EDMUND MORRIS:

I don’t know. He was just an extraordinarily fast reader, about three to four pages a minute. And everything he read he tended to photograph in his head, so he remembered everything. He could quote stuff years, decades later word perfect.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

But, obviously, if he’s spending his time reading Walter Scott, I mean, he must have been a very lightweight president. And, in fact, he can’t have been engaged in anything serious on the public stage.

EDMUND MORRIS:

Well, I can’t think of anything more irritating than the claim that to read fiction is to be lightweight. On the contrary, I think somebody who reads nothing but political books and books on contemporary affairs, which is the average diet of all these political drones who have been criticizing President Obama, I think they are lightweights.

A man who can read good poetry and good fiction is by nature a, a rounded man and a man with a rich mind.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
There were people who wanted to claim the President, based on his reading. The poet Robert Frost said, “He was our kind. He quoted poetry to me.”

EDMUND MORRIS:

He flabbergasted Frost when he met him in 1907 and recited one of Frost’s least well known poems to him, entire. And more relevantly, Edward Arlington Robinson, who is completely forgotten now but was a great poet and contemporary of Frost – TR read this man’s poems in 1905, heard that he was on the skids in New York City, working in the subway system, and gave him a Federal job on the strict understanding that he should do nothing but write poetry as long as TR remained president. And Edward Arlington Robinson went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Let me ask you about moments of national crisis. Did you notice any drop-off or change in his reading during moments of great political pressure?

EDMUND MORRIS:

No. The – the way TR reacted to pressure was to luxuriate in it.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

He loved pressure, and the, the greater the pressure, the better he functioned.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
If Teddy Roosevelt read so broadly and so many different genres, is it possible to offer a psychological portrait of him, based on his reading?    

EDMUND MORRIS:

Well, let me say that a president who reads widely and reads as voraciously as this, begins to – and if he reads in other languages – he gets to understand foreign cultures, which is a prerequisite of the presidency that has been really shortchanged over the last century or so.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

How many books did he write?

EDMUND MORRIS:

He wrote approximately 40 books and they comprised in part multi-volume histories of the America West, a whole series of biographies and lots of stuff on naval history and military history and nature and hunting and a plethora of other subjects.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

How many did he write when he was President?

EDMUND MORRIS:

He did not write any books as President, with the exception of editing a book on, on wildlife.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Mm-hmm.

EDMUND MORRIS:

But he felt that the President of the United States should concentrate on being President.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And reading.

EDMUND MORRIS:

Yeah.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

On reading.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHING] Edmund Morris, thank you very much.

EDMUND MORRIS:

Thank you. It was fun.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Edmund Morris has written the definitive trilogy of books about President Theodore Roosevelt:  The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt.

[CLIP/The Right of the People to Rule]: THEODORE ROOSEVELT:

I am not leading this fight as a matter of esthetic pleasure. I am leading because somebody must lead, or else the fight would not be made at all.

I prefer to work with moderate, with rational conservatives, provided only that they do in good faith strive forward toward the light. But when they halt and turn their backs to the light and sit with the scorners on the seats of reaction, then I must part company with them.